What do we mean by faith?
Criticism of Christian faith is not new. The 2nd Century pagan critic of Christianity, Celsus, put it this way: Some Christians do not even want to give or receive a reason for what they believe, and use expressions such as “Do not ask questions, just believe” and “Your faith will save you.” Others quote the apostle Paul, “The world’s wisdom is evil and foolishness is a good thing.”
Enlightenment critics in the “age of reason” spoke of Christian faith as superstition and ignorance. Faith is a favorite whipping boy of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, who said: “It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, ‘mad cow’ disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” Elsewhere, Dawkins added: “Faith is the great cop out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence … Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.”
It is not hard to make the case that Dawkins has an extremely shallow understanding of “faith,” quite unlike actual Christian faith. W. H. Griffin-Thomas (1861-1924) former Principal, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford affirms what serious Christians say about their faith (quoted by Alister McGrath in Dawkins’ God):
[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.
Greco-Roman pagans like Celsus, following Plato, believed that the things seen in this world would never lead anyone to God. How could God possibly become a human being and be crucified? The early Christian apologist Origen (185- 250AD) responded that Celsus wanted a “Greek proof” [today we would say “scientific proof”] but the gospel “has a proof that is proper to itself and is more divine than the dialectical arguments of the Greeks,” the proof of the Spirit and of power (Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:4-5, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”).
The early Christians and their pagan critics both valued and used reason and logic. The central issue was where was reason to begin. Christ brings in something new (2 Cor. 4:6, “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”) In Christ is found the reason–the logos, the logic–that inheres in all things. Knowledge of Christ comes from a story, from eyewitness accounts, and from the work of God’s Spirit.
Saint Augustine (354-430AD) held that “nisi credideritis, non intelligitis” [unless you believe, you will not understand]. Furthermore, Augustine said: “No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable. … Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought. … Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.” With this in mind, chemist/philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891 – 1976), who has articulated a post-enlightenment way of human knowing, scientific and otherwise, has this to say: “We must now go back to St. Augustine to restore the balance of our cognitive powers…”
Everyone has a basic faith in some conception of the way things are. Faith implies trust. It is more than mere belief. What we think about the way things ultimately are determines how we will live.
Aristotle tells us (in his Posterior Analytics II.19) that “… demonstration cannot be the originative source of demonstration, nor, consequently, scientific knowledge of scientific knowledge. If, therefore, it is the only other kind of true thinking except scientific knowing, intuition [νοῦς, nous] will be the originative source of scientific knowledge.” Our starting point, nous, “rational intuition,” depends in turn on on πίστις, pistis, trust, confidence, “faith.” We never start in a vacuum. In any endeavor of human knowing, we have to begin by trusting something.
Nobel laureate physicist Max Planck (1858 – 1947) said: “Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.”
- Scientists trust in the rationality and uniformity of the Universe.
- Christians trust in the reality of God as told in the stories in the Bible and especially in the story of Jesus. Our lives have meaning and purpose in a context given by God.
- Some people trust in “nothing-butism:” We and the whole universe are “nothing but” matter and energy. There is no God and the Universe has no purpose. This is ultimately incoherent.
Christians did not reject reason in favor of “blind” faith, but brought a new confidence in reason based on the story of Jesus. In it the goodness of the world, and human experience in the world, is validated. When it comes to God, reasoning begins with faith. Faith begins with the actual facts of God’s revelation, with historic eyewitness accounts. The witness of the apostles is trusted. In real life we have to trust others. This gives us real knowledge. St. Augustine said: “In practical life, I do not see how anyone can refuse to believe altogether.” Furthermore, “Nothing would remain stable in human society if we determined to believe only what can be held with absolute certainty.”
What is the role of authority (auctoritas)—the authority of a teacher—where do we go to find out what we need to know (math from a math teacher, plumbing from a plumber, to play a piano from a piano player? You learn a skill from someone who has that skill.
A good teacher does not coerce, but invites the learner to gain insights and understanding. Living the Christian life is like that—we have to learn from those who are practiced in living it. It has to do with practices, attitudes, dispositions, the ordering of one’s loves. One gains knowledge over time. It is not just a matter of what I should believe, but whom should I believe, that is, trust. St. Augustine said: “Authority invites belief and prepares man for reason. Reason leads to understanding and knowledge. But reason is not entirely absent from authority, for we have to consider whom we are to believe.” Furthermore, mere authority is never sufficient. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) says: “If the teacher determines the question by appeal to authorities only, the student will be convinced that the thing is so, but will have acquired no knowledge or understanding, and he will go away with an empty mind.”
- God’s grace—his movement towards us–is crucial.
- St. Irenaeus of Lyons, ca 120-202AD):“The Lord taught us that no one is able to know God unless taught by God. God can not be known without the help of God.”
- Origen (185- 250AD): “We affirm that human nature is not in any way sufficient to seek God and find him with purity unless it is helped by the one who is the object of the search.”
- St. Basil the Great (329-379AD): “Anyone who does not … enjoy fellowship and intimacy with God is unable to see the works of God.”
- Without love and a purity of heart, there is no knowledge of God: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”(Matt. 5:8)
The most fundamental act of Christian trust is in God as made manifest in Jesus Christ. There is no other starting point.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.2 Cor. 4:6